Wishes and horses: Tobago’s Healing With Horses

Through contact with gentle equine companions and stimulating creative activities, Tobago-based Healing With Horses offers an innovative and life-changing therapeutic programme for differently-abled children. Elspeth Duncan describes a day in the life of the annual summer camp

A happy young participant in the Healing With Horses annual camp in Tobago. Photograph by Elspeth DuncanHealing With Horses camp participants interact with the project’s rescue horses. Photograph by Elspeth Duncan

It is Monday 7 July, 2014. Children in colourful t-shirts form an effervescent rainbow in the stadium seats of Tobago’s Buccoo Integrated Facility. Those who have been here before are bubbling with the energy of meeting old and new friends. They can barely contain their excitement on the first day of Healing With Horses’ annual summer camp.

New children sit quietly. Some are shy, scared, crying — but not for long. Local and foreign volunteers, spanning the age spectrum from teen to sexagenarian, make the children feel at home with love and attention. “Home” — a not so pleasant word for some of these youngsters — is about to be redefined in a way that will transform their sense of self and experience of life. It doesn’t take long to plant a seed, and the continued work of Healing With Horses will support and nurture many of the sprouted “seedlings.”

A smiling caretaker pushes a young girl’s wheelchair up the ramp leading to the stadium seating.

“Hey, you’ve got a red wheelchair! How cool is that? Mine is boring old grey,” says UK-based Chantelle, one of the art and costumes teachers. The girl, Genesis, says nothing, but her body puffs up with quiet pride.

Veronika Danzer-LaFortune — who co-founded Healing With Horses in 2010 with her husband Lennon — stands before the gathering with a microphone. She welcomes the children, talks about the horses (a favourite for most), and introduces Jason, the MC.

Also the choir teacher (one of the 2014 camp’s fourteen activities), Jason smiles in his wheelchair. He is about to sing Trinidad and Tobago’s National Anthem, accompanied on pan by Shane, the camp’s steel pan teacher.

And now the 2014 camp has officially begun.

 

Healing With Horses started with Veronika Danzer-LaFortune’s vision of “a place for children aged six to twelve from different backgrounds, with varying physical abilities and of different nationalities, to come together to enjoy therapy and creative play.” After running the annual camp for two years, HWH expanded its activities to include weekly sessions year-round. As the name of the organisation suggests, a key element is close contact with HWH’s herd of gentle horses rescued from abandonment in Tobago.

The two-week camp — the centerpiece of HWH’s programme — caters to over a hundred differently-abled children. Here they can happily explore new experiences — through each other, their caretakers, and the experience of diverse activities geared to suit their abilities, while also stretching them beyond perceived limitations. Activities include everything from cooking and creative gardening to music and acrobatics, in and around the Buccoo Integrated Facility and Buccoo Community Centre, and HWH’s verdant sensory playground.

The cliff-top playground is a magical wonderland of trees, kitchen gardens, brightly painted benches, swings, and colourfully adorned tyres for swinging and obstacle course navigation. A bamboo tree house, large wind chime made from old metal pipes, and various natural shelters built from gathered wood and twigs are innovative additions constructed (with youthful assistance) by Thomas Hutchinson, an English instructor.

Today, on the football field, eight horses and one pony bask in the attention of children who are learning to greet, ride, walk, and groom these majestic animals.

Keron, a differently-abled young man who smiles constantly and does not speak in words, communicates with his best friend, Kalakunjin the horse, using eye contact and sign language in a way that he has never done with humans. In the three years that he has spent afternoons at Healing With Horses, meditatively grooming the horses for hours, Keron has never ridden.

Now, for the first time in three years, he consents when Lennon asks if he would like to ride: a miracle moment. Keron is helped up. He sits on Kalakunjin, his face even more silent, in awe, as his best friend stands still and sure, supporting him. Guided by Lennon, and safe in their longstanding connection of trust and love, Keron and Kalakunjin move forward slowly.

Examples abound of differently-abled children whose lives have been transformed by the horses. Genesis, who is usually strapped into a wheelchair, sits freely, with no need for restraint, when on the back of a horse. After two years of riding therapy, little Christiano, once unable to walk, now runs. Then there is Daniel, who works daily with the horses — once an overweight, withdrawn autistic teen. Now slim and fit, he interacts openly, proudly promoting himself as a photographer, musician, and filmmaker, with his first film to be screened at the 2014 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival.

The horses give these children exactly what they need: balance, freedom, unconditional love, and more — stretching them beyond textbook boundaries ascribed to the physical, mental, or emotional conditions with which many of them live.

Nearby, in the art and costumes section, a few children boldly paint calabashes, t-shirts, and wall hangings. Cardboard masks adorn the walls. Classical music pipes from the “Joy of Learning” room where Auntie Jackie reads a story to an enraptured group. In the kitchen, young chefs immersed in creative cooking are making cheesy lettuce wraps. Eyes open in surprise as they bite in. So much for not liking vegetables!

Participants in a nature walk stroll along the shore, observing flora and fauna and collecting garbage to learn about recycling. On the cliff, small orange wheelbarrows move amid beds and grow-boxes created from bamboo and reused plastic containers. Inspired by the FIFA World Cup, other children kick a football around the field where the horses graze, while those doing acrobatics twirl ribbons, skip, and learn German circus tricks on the goat race track.

“Boop boop, bap boop boop!” A young boy explains what he learned in drumming class. The tinkle of steel pan class mingles in the distance. Cameras gripped in small hands pop up around every corner. The photography group is intent on capturing everything, from “horse poop” to selfies.

The camp is a microcosm of the macrocosm that is Healing With Horses — “an integrated, inspiring space for differently-abled children where they are embraced and empowered to realise their full potential through therapeutic interactions.”

 

For more information and the opportunity to support Healing With Horses, visit www.healing-with-horses.com